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Japanese art exhibit bows to tradition

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Farm workers plow, dig and harvest plants beneath the hazy shadow of a mountainside.

The bucolic watercolor conjures Japan’s 19th century Edo period, a prosperous time known for its explosion of art, especially in the form of woodblock prints.

But the self-taught artist Chuzo Tamotzu painted the scene in New Mexico in 1952, titling it “Sandias.”

The exhibition “Unfolding Traditions” at the Albuquerque Museum showcases traditional Japanese woodblock prints alongside their contemporary heirs. The show will hang in the museum’s Works On Paper Gallery through Sept. 29.

Nature and the human body interweave throughout Japanese art, from 19th century prints to modern artists using traditional techniques in abstract forms.

Born in Japan, Tamotzu emigrated to the U.S. in 1920, living in New York before moving to Santa Fe in 1948, where he worked for the New Mexico Arts Commission. The artist also completed the ink-on-paper drawing “Self-portrait Cutting Hair” (1963).

“It’s interesting because it’s an intimate portrait,” museum curator Josie Lopez said. “There’s still this traditional style when you look at the brush strokes and shadow. He’s still connected to traditional Japan.”

Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Women Pilgrims at Enoshima at the Opening of the Festival of Benten” is an 1852 woodblock print depicting the “floating world” (ukiyo). The term evoked an imagined universe of wit, stylishness, and extravagance – with overtones of naughtiness, hedonism and transgression. The floating world culture developed in Yoshiwara, the licensed red-light district of Edo (modern Tokyo), the site of many brothels frequented by Japan’s growing middle class.

“Enoshima is an island off the coast of Japan that has had this religious significance for more than 1,500 years,” Lopez said. “There was a five-headed dragon and this goddess (Benten) who defeats the dragon. You can see these bodies of water that represent purification.”

Benzaiten, the goddess of music and entertainment, is enshrined on the island. Followers believe she raised it from the bottom of the sea in the sixth century.

Before the Chinese introduced Buddhism to Japan, Shinto was the prevailing faith. In the Shinto belief system, Kami, or deities, are believed to exist in nature. In this print, water is one of the seven gods of luck.

Similarly, Keisei Eisen’s “Station 7 (Okegawa),” 1834-1842, represents the floating world with roads linking Edo (now Tokyo) to the rest of Japan. Sixty-nine stations offer food and lodging for travelers.

“You see farmers, laborers and nobles, so he’s really capturing that pilgrimage,” Lopez said.

In contrast, Albuquerque resident Emi Ozawa’s “Big Orange Bite,” 2018, retains the Japanese tradition of balance in a contemporary, minimalist form with paper on board.

“They’re very geometric and very abstract,” Lopez said. “She’s bringing in color and line and shadow.”

The exhibition features 12 works drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and includes Japanese artists, immigrants and natural-born American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

Life in New Mexico

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